NAS President Peter Wood's Letter to Claremont McKenna College President Chodosh

Peter Wood

On April 6, a mob of Claremont McKenna students prevented Heather Mac Donald from giving her invited lecture on the Claremont campus. The Claremont students followed the example of their peers at Berkeley and Middlebury: riots to shut down free speech are quickly becoming the norm on college campuses. This physical violence caps an accumulation of disinvitations of speakers from campus—John Derbyshire at Williams, Jason Riley at Virginia Tech—and the slow extrusion of all dissenting voices from the progressive dogmas on campus. “By any means necessary,” the authoritarian left is shutting down freedom of speech on campus.

The National Association of Scholars upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship. Part of our mission is to engage administrators responsible for our nation’s campuses in conversation, to remind them of the ideals that colleges are supposed to defend, and if at all possible to elicit a commitment to those ideals by which they can be held accountable to the public. We wrote most recently to President Adam Falk of Williams College, to ascertain his rationale for disinviting John Derbyshire.

NAS President Peter Wood now writes this public letter to President Hiram E. Chodosh of Claremont McKenna College, to establish what President Chodosh takes to be the parameters of free speech at Claremont. We hope that President Chodosh will respond, and with a broad endorsement of free speech that commits Claremont McKenna to an effective defense of free speech going forward. We are at a clarifying moment—for Claremont in particular and for American higher education in general.

April 20, 2017

Mr. Hiram E. Chodosh


Claremont McKenna College

500 E. Ninth Street

Claremont, California 91711

Dear President Chodosh,

I write as president of the National Association of Scholars, a thirty-year-old organization devoted to the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.  We have been following for several years the rise of campaigns by student groups to impede outside speakers from presenting their views on college campuses. 

I read with interest your statement on April 7, following the public protest that prevented Heather Mac Donald from giving her invited lecture before a live audience.  Your explanations and assurances are helpful, but may I ask for some further clarification?  I have several questions, your answers to which would be valuable to the Claremont McKenna students, faculty, and alumni, as well as the broader public.  The spirit of the questions is skeptical but not hostile.  I realize you are dealing with difficult matters.

Does free speech exist at CMC?  You indicate that free speech is important to the college, and the college’s own Staff Handbook speaks of “the College’s core values of academic freedom and free speech.”  The Faculty Handbook also devotes a section to academic freedom. Declaring principles, however, differs from putting them into daily practice.  The events on April 6 were plainly at odds with free speech. But was preventing Heather Mac Donald from speaking an aberration or evidence of a deep-seated problem?   If you were to write a report on the state of free speech at CMC today, what would you conclude?

Are there any people who are not welcome to speak at CMC?  A commitment to free speech in the context of higher education requires a great deal more than safeguarding the right of invited speakers to be heard without disruption.   But safeguarding that right hasbeen a key diagnostic of the health of campus free speech since the 1930s, and is front and center in Yale’s 1974 Woodward report which sets forth the college’s policy regarding outside  speakers.  Under the Woodward policy any invited speaker, however unpopular, must be allowed to speak without disruption. There are no exceptions.  The respectful treatment of speakers, especially those who are controversial and who come from outside the university community, signals the institution’s seriousness in promoting free speech.  If a well-known national figure can be silenced, what chance does the untenured faculty member or the undergraduate student have to articulate views that others might wish to suppress?

Many colleges do not follow the Woodward policy.  For example, Williams College “disinvited” John Derbyshire because of an article he had written on race.  President Adam Falk said that there is “a line” between permissible and impermissible speech and that Derbyshire had crossed that line.  That Derbyshire’s talk was not on the subject of race was deemed irrelevant.  In your own consortium, Scripps College disinvited George Will because of an article he had written months earlier about victimhood, sexual assault allegations, due process, and trigger warnings.  The then-president of the college justified the disinvitation on the grounds that Will’s mere presence on campus would create an unsafe environment for students.

Does CMC have a “line” that separates permissible from impermissible speech?  If so, what distinguishes the one from the other?  Students at Wellesley College, writing in the official editorial voice of the student newspaper on April 12, drew their own line—in reference to a talk by invited speaker Laura Kipnis, declaring:

Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government. The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.

Ideas like this are clearly gaining some currency at contemporary liberal arts colleges, including the students at your sister institution, Pomona College, who wrote to President Oxtoby that “free speech” has become “a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions.” 

The disinvitations to Derbyshire and Will, the disruptive protests that have attended speakers such as Charles Murray at Middlebury, and the furious reaction of others when a speaker such as Kipnis does manage to speak, point to a growing willingness on the part of a segment of the academic community to impose a very strict line between acceptable and unacceptable speech.

Note that in the cases of Derbyshire, Will, and Kipnis, the line was drawn not on the basis of a complex set of circumstances, or a lifetime body of work, but on the basis of a single published article. Would you have disallowed Derbyshire, Will, or Kipnis from speaking at CMC based on their respective articles?  Or Murray on the basis of a book published 23 years ago?  If you are ready to draw a line, where do you draw it for CMC?

How do you know whether there is free speech on campus?  In addition to the event of April 6, two years ago there was a similar widely publicized incident.  These events appear to show that some CMC students feel entitled to prevent the expression of views with which they disagree, thus raising the distinct possibility that voluntary support for the principle is weak, and that the CMC administration is disinclined to make an issue of it.  If I anticipate correctly that you will say, contrary to my contention, that CMC does have free speech, how can you tell?

What do you do to ensure free speech at CMC?  Free speech does not thrive on its own.  It requires responsible authorities who uphold the rule of law and who maintain the necessary degree of decorum and civility that must exist for controversial views to be aired.  The readiness to suppress opinions that conflict with orthodoxies is found in every human community.  Free speech requires determined effort by community leaders to push against that characteristic reflex. 

That is especially true today on college campuses on which a strictly enforced orthodoxy is maintained on subjects bearing on race, gender, sexual orientation and the environment.  Formal policies are necessary for establishing free speech, but formal policies are not enough. Even with the right policies, students will self-censor if they expect their views will expose them to opprobrium from other students and from faculty members, some of whom may be their teachers.  The success of those who prevented Mac Donald from speaking (in the venue in which she was invited to speak) sent a clear message to CMC students that to express views similar to hers would be met with vituperative attack and social ostracism.  Moreover, from this point on, CMC students will be more cautious in inviting speakers. 

What steps have you taken to foster at CMC an atmosphere in which students, faculty members, and invited speakers can express their views on controversial topics confidently and without fear of disruption or reprisals of any sort?  CMC has made a large effort both to teach and to practice ethnic and racial diversity.  To these ends CMC offers numerous courses and maintains policies, procedures and informal rules grounded in the pursuit and protection of such diversity.  Does CMC do anything comparable for free speech?

Is intellectual diversity required for free speech?  My answer is a decided yes.  “Intellectual diversity” refers to the degree to which actual proponents of differing views on important topics are present among the members of an academic community. Free speech will not prevail without robust disagreement.  And that will occur only if controversial views are defended by faculty who actually hold those views.  (Outside speakers who are on campus for a few hours are no substitute for full-time faculty.)  

But my answer is not the only one on offer. A contrary view holds that free speech can be attained by having students learn about controversial views from teachers who do not themselves hold those views and who may, in fact, strongly reject them.  This makes sense in some contexts and, in some subjects, such as representing long-since-discredited views once held by important historical figures, it is the only option.  Applied to the contemporary debates, however, this approach demands of the faculty member a level of impartiality and self-restraint that is both increasingly uncommon and, in many instances, firmly rejected. 

Do you have a position on this? Is intellectual diversity among the faculty a necessary condition for free speech? Or is it adequate to rely on faculty members to represent fairly views they reject? 

In the case of outside speakers, absolute free speech can in principle be maintained. In the academic sphere free speech can never be absolute, because a college has only a finite number of faculty positions and course offerings.  One way or another, choices must be made, which means that some views will be favored over others and some views will be neglected entirely.  

How are such decisions made at CMC?  By whom? And once made, how are they implemented?  These are difficult questions but if intellectual diversity is necessary for free speech, they must be engaged.  

What are the core values of CMC?   The core values of the college will determine the extent to which there is free speechYour statement after the disruption refers to “our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy.”  These are not the same as the freedoms set forth in CMC’s Staff Handbook, which refers to:

the College’s core values of academic freedom and free speech.  As an institution of higher learning, Claremont McKenna College has a profound commitment to the free expression and testing of ideas - whether or not those ideas are controversial or unpopular - for such freedoms are essential to the search for truth, the central purpose of any institution of higher learning.

That formulation makes “the search for truth” pivotal.  On the other hand, CMC’s mission statement is silent on the search for truth.  It declares the college’s mission is: 

to educate its students for thoughtful and productive lives and responsible leadership in business, government, and the professions, and to support faculty and student scholarship that contribute to intellectual vitality and the understanding of public policy issues.

Your statement is possibly consistent with these other two statements, but the emphases are strikingly different. 

Dialogue, the search for truth, and intellectual vitality are members of the same extended family, but they are not the same things.  Dialogue emphasizes differing opinions, with no necessary effort to determine which is closest to the truth.  The search for the truth, by contrast, can and does sideline some opinions as ungrounded and unworthy of further consideration.  Intellectual vitality need not involve dialogue or truth-seeking, but merely the excitements of encountering new ideas. 

CMC appears to have blurred these distinctions, which may explain the college’s muddled response to those who sought to prevent Mac Donald speaking on April 6.  Your letter treated the matter as essentially one of not having the right security measures in place, but the college’s responsibility is deeper than that.

I believe the college’s responsibility lies more in having created an environment which allows, even encourages, student mobs intoxicated by absolute certainty.  The Mac Donald event was the entirely predictable result of not having intellectual diversity.  Without it, prevailing views go unchallenged. Arrogance, intolerance, and ultimately violence are invariably the result.  As I said, I believe this.  But perhaps you have another view?  In your letter you emphasized that Mac Donald was, in the end, able to speak in front of a camera and that, as a result, a large number of people were able to hear what she had to say, and no one was physically injured. This sounds more than a little like satisfaction at the way things worked out, and minimization of the concerns over free speech. 

In addition to writing to you directly, my intention is to make this a public letter and, with your permission, to publish your responses.  I realize you are under no obligation to respond except to the degree that you believe this exchange is a valuable form of dialogue on a topic of importance both to your college and to the broader public.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Wood

Image Credit: Craig Stanfill

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